It's not exactly a secret that Donald Trump has been reluctant and slow to punish his benefactors in Russia, no matter how serious the allegations against Vladimir Putin's government. But it's not quite right to say the American president has done literally nothing.
Last month, for example, the Trump administration announced new economic sanctions against Russia in response to the foreign attack on the U.S. elections in 2016. At first blush, it appeared to be the first meaningful step this White House was willing to take to push back against Moscow.
But upon closer inspection, the move looked less significant. For example, Michael Carpenter, the Pentagon's former Russia chief, made the case that the Trump administration's sanctions were "totally inconsequential." Carpenter added, "The [Obama] administration had already sanctioned most of the entities and individuals designated today, so there's really nothing new here.... I suspect the Trump administration will cite these designations as evidence that it is getting 'tough' on Russia but in this case it's all smoke and mirrors."
Remember, at the time, this was the only action Trump was willing to take against Russia since taking office -- and it apparently amounted to very little.
Last week, however, the White House went further, announcing the expulsion of 60 Russian officials in response to Russia's role in a poison-gas assassination attempt in the U.K. A USA Today reporter, however, noted that there was a catch: the Trump administration's move didn't require Russia to reduce its staffing levels. Business Insider added:
A State Department official confirmed to Business Insider that the White House's diplomatic expulsion will not require Russia to reduce its staffing levels in the US, and vice versa. In other words, the 60 diplomats who were kicked out -- many of whom were undercover intelligence operatives -- can be replaced by others.
A State Department spokesperson told The Guardian yesterday, "As with similar incidents in the past, the Russian government remains free to request accreditation for vacant positions in its bilateral mission. Any requests for new diplomatic accreditation will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis."
AFP published the identical quote late last week, citing an unnamed State Department official.
If these reports are correct, it puts the latest White House moves in an important context: even when it looks like Donald Trump might be pushing back against Russia, he may not actually be pushing back against Russia.
What's more, as regular readers know, the White House was recently eager to insist that when it comes to Russia, Trump has been incredibly “tough.” We should all be impressed with his “toughness.” Trump’s tough toughness, the argument went, has certainly been tougher than that rascally Barack Obama, who was never as tough as Donald “Tough” Trump.